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Change–Never More Than Three!

by David Brock on September 6th, 2018

We all know how difficult it is to change.  Whether it’s our own personal habits/behaviors, those of our teams, our organization/company, or getting our customers to change.

There endless pithy quotes both about the importance of change and the challenges of change.  There are 1000’s or articles (add one more to the stack) about how to drive change.

I’m not sure I have the magic solution to change.  How to make it less painful (I’m not sure we really want to make it less painful)?  How to make it easier, how to get people to accept it.

Perhaps the only piece of wisdom, based on painful experience, is change–but don’t change too much.

Now I know this could be really misconstrued.  Where it’s necessary, I’m all for massive change, major shifts.

What I mean is too often, we try to change too many things at once–and that’s where we fail.

We fail simply because human beings don’t have the capacity to do more than a few things at one time, really well.  And many would argue, justifiably, that we can only do one thing really well at a time.

As managers, when (if) we coach, while well intended, sometimes the impact of our coaching is the opposite of what we intended.  Usually, it’s because we are trying to correct everything about what a person is doing, their behaviors and how they can improve their performance.  “You need to use the sales process, you aren’t planning or executive your calls effectively, your prospecting is insufficient, you need to build your pipeline, you aren’t updating CRM, you don’t understand your customers’ business……”

I’ve shared the story of a “friend” trying to help me with my golf swing.  “Keep your head down, bend your knees, rotate your shoulders, keep your elbow tucked in…..”  Trying to remember and execute all these things at once actually made me worse.

Likewise, when we try to address all the things our people need to change at once, when we keep piling on, they get confused.  They end up changing nothing or even getting worse.

While there may need to be many things our people need to change about how they execute or their behaviors, we are most effective when we focus, ideally, on one thing at a time–but never more than three (and these should be closely related).

This puts a huge, but appropriate, onus on sales managers.  We have to be thoughtful about what we prioritize to coach.  We have to think, “what is most important, what will have the biggest impact?”  As much as we may be distracted by other things we want to address, we will confuse the person we are coaching and dilute the impact of our coaching.

We are much more impactful when we focus on one (never more than three) key areas, coaching those consistently across different activities they impact.  When we see an area that needs to be coached, we look at how it applies to deals, prospecting, calls, prospecting, account/territory plans, time management, teamwork, and so forth.  Typically, we see behaviors that aren’t limited to just one aspect of the job, but impact several areas of performance.  We have a greater impact in changing behaviors when we focus on that behavior across a variety of activities the sales person does.

In focusing on one key area, we can drive rapid change and improvement, then move to the next area, then the next.  Making a number of very fast, focused improvements enable the sales person to make greater progress and to sustain that progress rather than confusing the sales person by trying to fix everything at the same time.

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  1. Dave Olson permalink

    Change is indeed so difficult to achieve and to manage well. I would add that the order of the changes is important too. Driving “rapid change” successfully and sustainably involves smaller bite size steps that can build on each other to achieve the desired “improvement”. This will be difficult for the coached as it most likely involves significant judgement in exactly the moment the change needs to occur while interacting with a prospect or customer. It might be a bit intimidating even for an “old hand” like me or even you.

    I am still learning new things each week by reading your blog. Thank you !!

    Dave Olson

    • Dave: It’s always great to see your comments here. The order in which you look at change initiatives is critical. I’m glad you reminded us.

  2. David, really liked you article and generally agree with it, especially as it pertains to micro change (e.g. focus on 1 or 2 specific areas). However, when it comes to corporate (macro) change, noted turnaround expert Greg Brenneman, in his outstanding book, Right Away and All at Once, suggests a focus on five (but no more) areas. By the way, I can relate to your analogy about how too many suggestions can make the golf swing worse. It should be a requirement for any type of change agent that new instructions can’t be given until the past ones are fully incorporated.

    • Christopher: Thanks for the great perspective. I’m familiar with Greg’s work. To some degree, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. His “5” is focused on an overall organizational perspective. In my post, I’m looking at change from and individual and team perspective. At the organizational level, we can focus on several things at a time, but as we translate that to change at and individual level, we have to make it simpler. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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